September 8, 2014

A community’s courthouse makes a statement

     If I’m driving through a county-seat town for the first time, I usually make a lap around the courthouse.  The appearance of that structure says something.
     Years ago, I stopped in Baxley to fill my gas tank.  The service station attendant pointed to the construction activity across the street.  “That’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he fumed. “That old courthouse ain’t worth fixing up.” 
     A few years later, I pulled back in to the station for another fill-up.  The same fellow greeted me.  This time, I pointed to the building across the street.  Before I could say anything, he piped up: “Doesn’t it look great?  We’re really proud of our courthouse.” 
     We are warned:  “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  Still, when I see a courthouse that’s begging for repair, I form an opinion: this is a community crying for someone to care.
     A pen-and-ink drawing of Wayne County’s courthouse hangs over my desk. Every time I walk into my office, the image speaks to me.  Without stepping into that high-ceiling center hall on the corner of Brunswick and Walnut streets, I can smell the well-oiled floors and hear the pine boards creak. 
In preparation for the upcoming Courthouses of Georgia, widely-acclaimed 
photographer Greg Newington toured the Peach State to take 
color photos of all 159 courthouses.  Fortunately, he arrived in Sparta months 
before the historic Hancock County courthouse went up in smoke on Aug. 11, 2014.
     As a young newspaperman, I quickly learned the office locations of Ordinary Gordon Bishop, Sheriff L.B. Warren and Clerk of Court Stetson Bennett Jr.  I also remember the day an angry constituent declared that he was going to clean out the courthouse and flung a hive of bees inside the front door.  And I’ll never forget the first time I was called for jury duty and spent hours debating the verdict in that small corner room.
     That’s why I like Huey Theus’ artwork in full view.  The drawing was done in 2002, just after the then 100-year-old courthouse was returned to its original glory.  Inmates did much of the renovation.  Many of them were found guilty in the very courtroom they helped to restore.  Talk about a novel way to pay for your crime.  I like what that says, too.
     There aren’t many courthouses in Georgia that I haven’t seen.  A few are ugly, but many are strikingly handsome.  One of my all-time favorites sits across from Sparta’s downtown square.  Maybe I should say: “was one of my favorites.”  I am still sad about what happened in Hancock County on Aug. 11th. 

     Three days earlier, I almost stopped to take a picture of the 1883 architectural gem, but I kept on rolling.  “Next time,” I rationalized.  A pre-dawn blaze sent flames leaping into the night’s sky.   The damage is estimated at $5 million, but you can’t put a price on all that went up in smoke.
Hancock County’s splendid landmark was gutted by fire on Aug. 11.  
The courthouse in downtown Sparta was built in 1883 with 
borrowed money from a wealthy planter.  His daughter—following 
her father’s death—forgave the remaining debt.  Last month, before the 
embers lost their glow, community leaders vowed to rebuild their courthouse.
     I’ve been circling the Highway 15 town’s square since 1966, when I enrolled in The University of Georgia.  And for 48 years I have admired the Hancock courthouse.  That’s why I stopped last week.  For the longest time, I just stood and looked at the charred skeleton of what was once a splendid landmark.  Before walking away, I snapped some photos.
     A wealthy planter loaned the money to build the original courthouse.  At his death, his daughter forgave the debt.  That said something 100-plus years ago.  Today, the Middle Georgia county is one of our state’s most economically challenged.  Still, the community vows to rebuild.  
     Thank you, Hancock County. 

      I really like what that says.

“The courthouse is where couples are married and where divorces are granted. It’s where bought land is registered and where lawsuits over ‘family inherited land’ are settled. It’s where one gets a gun permit and it’s where murder trials are held. When there is a birth, a record is made, and when there is a death someone registers that also, often in the same office. The courthouse is where one pays taxes and where one might be ordered to pay other debts to society. . . . This is what this book is all about. It’s for us to look, see, and remember: memories good and bad, history laudable and shameful.”